Omaha’s Justice Journey

Omaha's Justice Journey for urban faithWhen black and white church leaders from this deceptively pleasant Nebraska city recognized the need for racial healing in their community, they got on a bus together and traveled south to visit landmarks of the civil rights movement. On their “Justice Journey,” they explored the complex emotions that still divide us as a nation — and the divine grace needed for true reconciliation.

This is the first report of a two-part series.

Most people don’t give the city of Omaha, Nebraska, a lot of thought. I didn’t either until three years ago when my family left Chicago after 16 years to put down roots in a new city. The smaller size and quality of life are inviting and we found Omaha to be a great place to raise a family. Omaha is routinely rated as one of the best mid-sized cities in the U.S., and we enjoy all it has to offer. However, soon after moving here I was surprised to discover some stark realities.

Omaha is a wealthy city, but it has the highest black child poverty rate in the entire United States. In the midst of our current recession, Omaha’s unemployment rate is still under 5 percent. However, in parts of North Omaha, which is a primarily black community, the unemployment rate is 20 percent overall, with census tracts that chronically experience a 30 to 40 percent unemployment rate. When friends from Chicago visit, it is not unusual for them to be disturbed by our local newscasts — they thought Omaha, Nebraska, would be different from Chicago — but we too hear regular reports of almost nightly shootings and homicides. We’ve also realized how segregated the city is, even compared to Chicago. So, while Omaha is a great place for some, others in my city have a different experience.

This reality is a high priority for many Christian leaders in Omaha who feel led to do something to raise awareness of the racial issues in the city.

This past spring, 50 leaders from 14 Omaha churches went on a Justice Journey. Doing the Journey was an idea that had been sparked a few years earlier at a Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Based on a concept developed by the Evangelical Covenant denomination called Sankofa (a West African word meaning “going back in order to move forward”), leaders with the mostly white Willow Creek partnered with leaders from the predominantly African American Salem Baptist Church of Chicago on the city’s Southside to embark on a bus tour through the Southern U.S. to sites made famous during the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

After attending a Willow Creek ministry conference, where a video clip of the Justice Journey was shown along with a discussion of how lives had been transformed as a result, Ron and Twany Dotzler of Abide Ministries felt that Willow’s model needed to be brought to Omaha. They soon discovered that others at the conference had similar thoughts — including John and Viv Ewing of the mostly black Salem Baptist of Omaha and Pastor George Moore of the mostly white West Hills Church. As they shared their perspectives, this multiracial group formed a planning team around the idea of creating a Justice Journey for Omaha’s churches. Five years later, it became a reality.

More Than a Sentimental Journey

Though some might write it off as an overly sentimental missions trip designed to assuage the racial guilt of white evangelical Christians, the Justice Journey is a carefully planned event with the purpose of raising awareness of justice issues, reconciliation, and the need for collective repentance and healing.

On Omaha’s first Journey, the participants were paired up interracially, mostly black and white. With their partners, they processed the complex history and emotions they encountered during the trip. It was stressed that everyone should speak their mind and not worry about “sounding ignorant.” From Omaha, the group traveled to Selma, Birmingham, and Atlanta and toured sites such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute, the Martin Luther King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the grave site of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, the Slavery and Civil War Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the “Bloody Sunday” conflict that disrupted the Selma march. The participants had time to read, learn, experience and discuss the history of each site. In addition, the Willow Creek Association’s Alvin Bibbs and legendary evangelical activist John Perkins joined the Omaha travelers to help guide their journey.

I recently spoke to five Justice Journey ’09 participants from three different churches, two black and one white, about their experiences.

Reflections from the South

Tim Perry, a white pastor from Christ Community Church, a primarily white, 3,000-attendee church, spoke of his time on the “Bloody Sunday” bridge. He was deeply impacted by the peacefulness the demonstrators exhibited, yet, they were not received peacefully and many of them met death.

Jay Castillo, also of Christ Community Church, said his experience in the Slavery museum was the most powerful. At this museum, an African American woman played the role of slave master and treated each visitor as if they were a slave. Jay, a 31-year-old Filipino-American originally from San Francisco, had studied the civil rights movement in school and knew many of the stories. A part of him felt that if he had been a slave, he would have stood strong and maintained his sense of dignity. However, as he participated in the role playing at the slavery museum, he gained a much greater understanding of how hard life was for slaves and how easy it was to be brainwashed. He could see how simple it would be to fall into a hopeless state. “Once you experience it, your level of understanding is totally different,” he said.

Omaha's Justice Journey for urban faith

Get on the Bus: Participants used the long ride south for reading, deep conversations, and the occasional nap.

Pastor James Patterson, of the mostly black Trinity Hope Church, was impacted by seeing a much larger picture of what happened during the civil rights movement. “I saw the complex structures put in place to keep blacks down,” he said. “This was a mirror reflection of what I had heard and seen during those years,”

Patterson arrived in Omaha in 1985 and began leading Trinity Hope, a Foursquare church, five years later. A reconciler at heart, he has worked for years at building bridges between the black and white communities in Omaha. “The exhibits at the Civil Rights Institute were history,” he added. “We don’t have to walk in those shoes of mental belittlement and threats anymore. We don’t live in that same kind of oppression. But it is powerful to look back.”

Another powerful moment came during the visit to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a bomb blast killed four young girls while they attended Sunday school. John Ewing, an associate minister at Salem Baptist and the Douglas County (Nebraska) treasurer, found this the most emotional part of the trip.

“As a black father of two daughters, it was hard for me to reflect on that pain,” he said. “The parents of those little girls did the right thing — they sent their children to church. You don’t expect something like that to happen.”

It was devastating for Ewing to think about how people could have so much hatred in them that they would blow up a church. Even more devastating is the thought that the bombers may have been churchgoing Christians themselves.

Viv Ewing, also an associate minister at Salem Baptist and president of Life Development International, found the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham impactful.

“I was not aware of the number of children that were involved in demonstrations, protests, peace marches, and sit-ins,” she said. “I was deeply affected by the display that showed the differences between a white classroom in the 1960s and a black classroom.”

She said whites had bright, well-kept rooms with new books, while classrooms for the black children were antiquated and looked like they were from the 1800s. The books in those classrooms looked as though animals had chewed on them. The contrast was eye opening, to say the least.

Our City, Our Issues

In reflecting on the Journey, all participants were moved by what they experienced and spurred on to work for justice in Omaha.

“I appreciated the fact that I could soak in what happened during that era with an African American brother by my side,” said Tim Perry. “By yourself you can see something, but with someone else you see so much more.”

The black pastors’ reactions to the different phases of the Justice Journey transformed Perry’s perspective. “I realized that the issues of race and justice are not closed; we must continue to work on them,” he said. “There I was with my counterpart — someone who is doing ministry just like I am. If I care about my friend and our relationship, I too have to work on this.”

Perry noted that, as a white person, he is not forced to pay attention to issues of race and justice each day in America, but African Americans are. Still, he would like people of all backgrounds and races in Omaha to understand that we are all a part of the community, and that we “own” all of its issues, all of its problems — and we need to work on them together.

The Justice Journey is not just a onetime event; it is a step on a greater journey to bring together Omaha’s Christians of all races to be the body of Christ in the city. The participants have many goals for the future. In part two of my report, the Omaha pilgrims discuss how the Justice Journey became a catalyst for changing their community back home.

Related Article: Omaha’s Justice Journey, Part 2.